I am home for the Christmas holidays. I caught the early train, in time to babysit Poppy while Clara and her mum takes the boys to see The Wind in the Willows. The 3.06 to Penzance was laden with holiday traffic, bags and overcoats crammed the luggage shelf. Many slept. Today is the shortest day and it is a good one for hibernating.
I cycled from the station in a grey, reducing light with the clouds to the west spread like muddied oranges, as if they had been trampled underfoot. There was a slow headwind, but I cycled with great pleasure because it was still light (it was pitch black when I left home at 6.45 this morning), and because I felt the family days ahead of me, and the friends we will see and the roast pork I will cook on Christmas day and the wine I will drink and the fires I will run through the day in our sitting room.
The WitW party returned at 10.00pm. Both boys were asleep in the back of granny’s car. I carried each of them upstairs and helped them change into their pyjamas. They were full of Ratty and Mole’s adventures, and Toad’s funny car. Fifteen minutes later Fred was fast asleep, but Jake was still awake, just. Fred tends to fall asleep quickly, Jake is prone to long vigils during which his thumb is thoughtfully sucked. Their beds are a few feet apart, and each night the two boys embark together into the night: bath, story, prayers, light’s out. Each morning they wake together, and for a time their warm beds and a residual but superficial obedience holds them before Fred sends Jake into our room.
“Can we play?” he asks brightly and depending on the hour is sent packing with his tail between his legs, or runs whooping back to his older brother shouting “they say ‘yes'”.
Our two boys (aged 6 and 4) dress together, they breakfast alongside one another, during the term they are driven to school together where they assemble in the school yard in waiting parallel lines (Fred: Sycamore Class, Jake: Oak Class), during the holidays they play together: lego, playmobile, soldiers, firemen, helicopter pilots, underwater rescue pilots, fire rescue men, mountain rescue … A hazel tree in our garden looks like a Buddhist prayer tree with bright strips of fabric and deposits of scrap fixed as high as Fred dares to climb. Jake, the younger and smaller (though great in brains and chutzpah), knows his place and stays below passing bits and pieces up to his brother. At lunch they sit opposite one another eating the same food, drinking from identical cups. On Saturday mornings they accompany one another to rugby practice, joining the same group, helping one another to tie identical belts of velcro tags around their waists. In the evening, tired, they fight one another in the bath, and chase one another around their bedroom, or unite to defy their father. At this final reckoning, they are one another’s last ditch ally, and the greatest enemy each must overcome. It is time for their story …
I suspect I’ve made my point. The intensity of sibling relationships; the knitted experience of growing up. How fundamental this bond must be, and how often it sours, or fails to blossom into adulthood. How do siblings ever survive apart? Is the coldness that can set into sibling relationships in adulthood caused by our embarrassment about the intimacy we had no choice but to share as children?
My father and uncle, both now dead from luekaemia, were identical twins. My father, John, died 25 years before my uncle and I don’t think he ever really got over John’s absence from his life. They had accompanied each other to the same school, university college and medical school; they were both bookish and enjoyed golf to a similar high standard; they were handsome and shared a teasing nature and a disposition, as far as I can tell, to seriousness. I could go on, and I’m sorry to be repetitive, but I guess it’s the point. Siblings share so much, and during their growing up they are compacted. This is disorientating for all concerned and warrants – in most cases – some letting go as boys and girls mature into adult individuals. Hopefully they re-engage on different terms and provide one another with a resource that is uniquely sympathetic and reliable. Often various complications, some perhaps unseen, makes this impossible. Let’s not forget wives and husbands getting in the way. And the post modern ascendancy of friendship over family; brothers are now picked out of social groups during periods of gregarious mixing like university. I can think of several of my own brothers whom I have acquired in this way. And I have two blood brothers, and a sister, who I did not pick but who I love and understand and to whom the door is always open. Does this sound sanctimonious? Or just slightly awkward? These things are worth having. What a peculiar bond it is.